In the movie Fiddler on the Roof, the village milkman, Tevye, lives his life according to the dictates of Tradition. However, he often does not know the reason for a particular tradition, only that it must be followed. While Tradition plays an important part in Tevye’s life, it is a vital element of Christian theology, especially Eastern theology.
In his book The Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes about the significance of tradition for Eastern Christians, notably as it contributes to its changelessness, its loyalty with the past. “This idea of living continuity may be summed up in one word: Tradition. As St. John of Damascus says, ‘We do not change the everlasting boundaries which our fathers have set, but we keep the Tradition, just as we received it.’ To an Orthodox Christian, Tradition means the Holy Bible; it means the Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, the Service Books, the Holy Icons.” Tradition is, in fact, the whole system of doctrine, ecclesiastical government, worship and art which has been articulated over the ages.
In Holy Tradition Metropolitan Ware points out that in the East, formal dogmatic definitions are less common than they are in the West. However, “. . . it would be false to conclude that because some belief has never been specifically proclaimed as a dogma, it is therefore not a part of Tradition, but merely a matter of private opinion. Certain doctrines, never formally defined, are yet held by the church with an unmistakable inner conviction, an unruffled unanimity, which is just as binding as an explicit formulation. ‘Some things we have from written teaching,’ said Saint Basil, ‘others we have received from the Apostolic Tradition handed down to us in a mystery; and both these things have the same force for piety.’ ”
“This inner Tradition ‘handed down to us in a mystery’ is preserved above all in the church’s worship. Lex orandi lex credendi: men’s faith is expressed in their prayer. Orthodoxy has made few explicit definitions about the eucharist and the other sacraments, about the next world, the Mother of God, the saints, and the faithful departed: Orthodox belief on these points is contained mainly in the prayers and hymns used at Orthodox services.”
Although vital to the Christmas story, one key element is brought to us not through Scripture, but Holy Tradition: the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos. According to Tradition, the parents of the Virgin Mary, Sts. Joachim and Anna, prayed that if they were ever to be blessed with a child, they would dedicate it to the service of God. Thus is was that when the Most Holy Virgin reached the age of three, the holy parents decided to fulfil their vow.
Fundamental to our understanding of the Entrance are, as noted above, the liturgical texts for the feast. The vespers not only recount the historic event, they express the ageless joy of all those who believe.
O faithful, let us leap for joy today,
singing psalms and hymns of praise
in honour of Mary, his mother,
the holy Tabernacle and Ark that contained the Word
whom nothing can contain.
She is offered to God as a child in a marvellous way,
and Zechariah the high priest receives her with great joy,
for she is the dwelling place of the Most High.
Today is the prelude of the good pleasure of God,
and the proclamation of salvation for the human race.
In the Temple of God the Virgin is clearly revealed,
and beforehand announces Christ to all.
To her, then, let us cry aloud with a mighty voice:
Rejoice, fulfilment of the Creator’s plan.
Interestingly, the historian Josephus Flavius (circa AD30 - 100) notes there were many living quarters around the Temple, in which those who were dedicated to the service of God dwelt. As well, an indication the Feast of the Entrance was celebrated by the very early church comes from Palestinian Christians. Their traditions hold that the holy Empress Helena (mother of Constantine the Great) built a church in honour of the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple.
While Sacred Tradition is vital to Christmas, this feast we are about to celebrate is ripe with secular traditions we have received from our ancestors. One of my favourite Ukrainian Christmas traditions is one which most certainly originated in pagan times, but remains vital today — the didukh. The didukh — grandfather — is a sheaf of wheat brought into the house on Christmas Eve. It would have been carefully selected at the end of the harvest and safely stored. In the past, it was meant to honour the gods who had provided a bountiful harvest. Today, its link is with Christ, the Bread of Life and with the holy eucharist, wheat changed into his body. It was, and may still, be believed that as long as the didukh was in the house, all the ancestors of the family resided in it. In this way, all generations could be together to celebrate the feast.
Living in a large city, my connection with the land is minimal. However, my desire to keep traditions alive is strong. For that reason, each year I plant a row or two of wheat in our garden, with the specific purpose of having a didukh.
After all preparations had been made for sviatij vechir — holy supper — on Christmas Eve, the head of the household would retrieve the didukh and bring it inside, where it would be placed in a spot of honour. As he did, he would recite the following prayer. It is my Christmas wish for you.
O most merciful Lord, and you Son of righteousness,
We greet you with Holy Christmas.
Last year you gave us a harvest, you gave us wealth, you gave us health.
Then help us this year, so that it will be better.
Kostyniuk, who lives in Edmonton, has a bachelor of theology from Newman and is a freelance writer. He and his wife Bev have been married for 37 years and have eight grandchildren.